A Hell….Creek of a Story!

I admit I have been negligent in my blogging.  I should have had a few updates and posts by this stage- however, long days in the field, limited internet connection, visiting paleontologists, and trying to work long distance on our Homer’s Odyssey: From the Badlands to Burpee Exhibit has made it difficult.  In fact, so much has happened in the last four weeks, I’m not sure where to begin.

First, I can start out by saying that compared to the last eleven field seasons, it was easily one of our best three, just behind Jane and tied for last year. That really is saying something considering some of the major discoveries we have made in Montana and Utah, like: Jane, the world’s most complete and best preserved juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex; Homer, our sub-adult Triceratops; and the massive late Jurassic dinosaur bonebed, the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry.

As many of you know, we wrap up our summer work in the Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana. The Hell Creek is a world-renowned formation that is exposed in parts of eastern Montana, western North Dakota, and South Dakota. This formation records the “last gasp” of the dinosaurs, or about 1.5 million years worth of time from 67 to 65.5 million years ago. This was when famous dinosaurs like T. rex, Triceratops, the duck-billed Edmontosaurus, the armored Ankylosaurus, and many more flourished.  Living alongside the dinosaurs were many plants (ginkgos, ferns, cycads, conifers and flowering plants) and other animals like crocodiles, a variety of turtles, lizards, mammals, salamanders, frogs, several species of fish including gar and freshwater stingrays, and much more.

In addition to the diverse fauna and flora, the rock and fossil record tells us that Montana was drastically different in climate. Eastern Montana was close to a slowly receding interior seaway and had a more temperate-tropical coastal environment; southern Louisiana would be a good analogy. Finally, another important reason to work the Hell Creek is that it provides a snapshot of a paleo-ecosystem just prior to a major extinction event where about 70% of the organisms within the fossil record disappear.

As mentioned, the Hell Creek has been our bread and butter since 2000 and we have had great success. In 2011 we continued to work a locality that had a massive Triceratops. We also made several new discoveries, including a fossil turtle locality where we had in situ, articulated turtles (at least four species); a new sub-adult Triceratops skull site; and a possible Edmontosaurus site. This year, we came back to reopen some old sites and begin working the new localities.

We had immediate good luck before we even got to our localities. The very first day, we saw that road crews were completing massive grading and terra-forming to some areas along the main road. One of these areas was a sandstone road cut. This sandstone probably represented an ancient sandbar within a river channel.  We thought it best to check this out before the grader demolished the site.  SCORE!  Burpee Preparator Steve Clawson found a fairly complete baenid turtle (carapace and plastron) just beginning to weather out.  So we excavated that little fella and some other fossils, saving them from imminent destruction.

Following this bit of luck, we opened up all of our sites; a) The Double L Trike Site, b) The Sully Edmonto Site, c) The Ninja Turtle Site, and more.  I should point out that “opening” a site is in no way like opening a can.  It involves lots of pickwork and shoveling.  In the case of one of the sites, we removed about 300 cubic feet of mudstone by hand…not fun.  But once they are open they are open for business.

In the first two weeks several new bones were found at the Double L Trike site including more dorsal (back) vertebrae, two squamosals (frill pieces), and some other mystery bones.  The Sully site was a lovely site to work- easy soft sand and well preserved bones.  In the few weeks it was worked several skull elements to an Edmontosaurus were found, along with vertebrae, ribs, and a scapula.  Some surprise elements from a possible Dromaeosaurid were found along with some shed T. rex teeth as well.  We even went and visited an “older” Edmontosaurus site to remove some long buried material, In the process collecting a large, beautiful Edmonto humerus (upper arm bone).  It also appeared that more bones were weathering out, so this site may require more attention in 2013.

The big “little” finds were at the Ninja Turtle Site.  In 2011, we collected three partial turtles and one nearly complete turtle from this locality. We came back this year and within just a few weeks found six more turtles (representing at least 3-4 species), one of which had a 2-foot long carapace and a very large skull/jaws.  In addition to the turtles we were finding Thescelosaurus, Champsosaurus, and even some appreciable small Tyrannosaurus material.  Buried at this site were additional microvertebrates like Myledaphus (stingray) teeth, crocodile teeth, mammal jaws, gar, sturgeon and more.  In fact, as I write this we are still working this site- right up to the last minute.

We also found a few new localities where we made some “easy” pickings by collecting a nice Trike orbital horn and partial frill.  Our other microvert localities were heavily sampled, with lots of great material collected.

So aside from getting great exhibit specimens, why are we still out here?  The answer is simply: to tell as complete a story about this amazing paleoenvironment as we can, and compare it to other localities within the Hell Creek not only here in southeastern Montana but in places like North Dakota, or near Jordan, Montana.  The more specimens we have the more complete a story we can tell. That requires us to collect big fossils (dinosaurs), small fossils (microverts), flora (leaves and pollen), and even just plain old chunks of sediment as they can tell us about the environment of deposition.  But can Burpee do all this collecting and research on its own with no help?  Of course not! Paleontology is about collaboration and I can say with some pride we are collaborating with some of the best minds in the paleo community.

In the next blog I will talk about who we are working with, what sort of research we are going to do, and how this will help us tell this Hell….Creek of a Story!

A Breather….

As I have been alluding to in my previous posts, the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry field season went very well.  In fact, this has been one of the few years we wrapped up on schedule, and removing the large plaster jackets went swimmingly.  My only concern was what sort of weight limit our new field trailer could handle.  We were able to fill it with all of our supplies, the new bones from this year, and two large (and I mean large) jackets from 2011.  Rough estimate on the weight was easily 4000 + lbs.  We left Utah on a Saturday and slowly made our way through the Rockies, arriving in Northern Illinois late on a Sunday; all in all, about 24 hours of driving- which isn’t too bad considering our cargo.  We unloaded all of our material into the Burpee Collections and began to catch up on work that waits for us while we are on the road.

A forklift loads the "Jimmy Jumble" jacket into the trailer in Utah in preparation for transport to Burpee Museum.

A forklift loads the “Jimmy Jumble” jacket into the trailer in Utah in preparation for transport to Burpee Museum.

I’m happy to say we had a few weeks at home, which allowed me to divert some attention to our upcoming Homer’s Odyssey: From the Badlands to Burpee exhibit, which we plan to open in the spring of 2013.  Additionally, I was able to catch up on lab work, collections organizing, and emails (which are actually very time-consuming).  While all this is going on, we are switching gears and preparing for the last bit of our field work, our Highway to Hell Creek Program.

The Hell Creek Formation is a geologic formation which is significantly younger than the Morrison Formation, where our Hanksville-Burpee Quarry is located.   The Hell Creek Formation records that last snippet of the Cretaceous Period, or the end of the age of dinosaurs, about 67-65.5 million years ago.  Despite the difference in time, the depositional processes that created both the Morrison and Hell Creek are similar- fluvial or river-borne deposition.  Like the Morrison, the Hell Creek is comprised of mudstones, sandstones, clay, and siltstone; all the “stuff” that rivers leave behind.  During the end of the Cretaceous parts of southeastern Montana and the western Dakotas were coastal floodplains and river systems and provided perfect conditions to bury large (and small) animals after they die.

Of course, by the time of the latest Cretaceous, our dinosaur fauna had changed dramatically.  Gone are the large sauropods and Stegosaurus, replaced by other herbivorous dinosaurs like the duckbilled Edmontosaurus and the horned Triceratops.  We have a large theropod, (without a doubt the most famous of dinosaurs) Tyrannosaurus rex; we also have smaller theropods, like the ostrich-mimic dinosaur Struthiomimus and the fleet-footed raptor Dromaeosaurus.  There are large armored dinosaurs like Ankylosaurus (probably one of the rarest of the Hell Creek dinos) and the “bone-headed” Pachycephalosaurus.

In addition to the dinosaurs, there were smaller vertebrate animals scurrying around like: crocodilians, turtles, lizards, snakes, gar, freshwater stingrays, other fish, birds, and mammals. The flora included ferns, cycads, ginkos, and conifers, but also flowering trees and plants.  If you were able to take a time machine back to southeastern Montana 66 million years ago and you didn’t immediately see a dinosaur, the other plants and animals might trick you into thinking that you have ended up in modern-day Florida or Louisiana.   However, if you hung around long enough eventually you would see a Triceratops lumber by, or a pterosaur fly overhead, or worse yet, the roar of a T. rex in the distance.

We have been collecting material from the Hell Creek Formation since 2001.  This is where we found Jane our juvenile T.rex, Homer our “teenaged” Triceratops, several other partial Triceratops specimens, a “pachy” dome, a new alligatoroid, a nearly complete fossil turtle, and lots of microvertebrate fossils.  The Hell Creek is a superb locality to collect material that gives us a snapshot of life just prior to one of the largest mass extinctions that occurred about 65.5 million years ago.  Everyone knows that the dinos died out, but the story is much larger than that.  Not only did the dinosaurs go extinct, but all the marine reptiles, pterosaurs, coiled ammonites, many species of mammals, coral, plants, and much more.  Think of collecting material here as adding another page or two to a book that has chapters missing.

That being said, we have a lot of work to do this summer; as mentioned, we have a large (presumably) adult Triceratops skull and skeleton to finish collecting, a new juvenile “trike” skull to collect, a possible Edmontosaurus to excavate, and a very exciting locality where we have articulated turtles and other small “stuff”.   A lot of this material will end up in our upcoming Homer exhibit, so as soon as we get back to Burpee we will begin preparing this for research and exhibit.  I’d like to say that the work Burpee has been doing in Montana has contributed to our knowledge of the latest Cretaceous of Montana and, in my humble opinion, we continue to make important finds out there….and it’s just plain fun!

So the last few days that I am here will involve making sure our permits are in order, getting our field vehicle serviced, checking our supplies and reloading our trailer, making sure all the trains are still on their tracks for the Homer’s Odyssey Exhibit, beginning a teaser exhibit for our Green River/Fossil Lake Fish, loaning some bird specimens out to a neighbor museum, etc.  Did I mention laundry, packing, and visiting friends and family before I/we leave?  So as the title says….we got our “breather”.

Keep checking back for our Montana updates!


Everything Old is New Again….

 As customary at the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry, we often have to excavate bones that we could not get to the previous year.  In the case of “Jimmy” our juvenile Diplodocus, several elements were discovered in 2011 and even though we removed as much of the disarticulated skeleton as we could, we had to leave some for this year.  So “Jimmy” was our top priority on what we call “Limb Bone Ridge”.   I am happy to say that we removed what we had to leave behind last year and found several new elements in the process, making “Jimmy” a mountable skeleton.

Over on the “Middle Quarry”, we have continued to whittle down a large bone jumble that is likely a juvenile Barosaurus (cousin to Diplodocus) that we had originally found in 2009. It’s been a slow process since the sandstone is much harder and it is a jackstraw of bones.  It’s nearly impossible to remove bone without running into others.  That being said, we have removed some “pesky” bones (such as a scapula and a pubis- hip bone).  With these bones gone, we can get better angles to remove the rest of the specimen.  So, hopefully in 2013 we can get to the rest of the specimen- which will also be a mountable skeleton.

In addition to working on our “old” specimens, inevitably we run into new material. This year, between “Jimmy” and another jumble on “Limb Bone Ridge”, removal of some very weathered and poorly preserved tail vertebrae revealed a very well preserved specimen (maybe even two).  We definitely have a sub-adult (teenaged) Apatosaurus.  This is the sauropod that most of us remember as “Brontosaurus”.  So far we have a few vertebrae, both humeri (upper arm bones), radius and ulna, scapula, ribs, partial hips, both femora (upper leg bones), a tibia and a section of caudal (tail) vertebra.  The bones are in a fine-grained sandstone and are well preserved.

In tandem with our excavations, our public tours have been a big success. In twelve days we had over 350 people brave the “rugged” county road, high temps, overbearing sun and, on several days, about 40-50 MPH winds. We had visitors from several countries and even more states.  Everyone had very positive remarks for our Educators and staff on what they saw at the quarry. Over the years, the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry has really proven its potential as a long term educational/interpretive site!

So what’s the score? Got a lot of our 2011 work done in 2012, discovered several new elements to new dinosaurs, and had one of our most successful tour seasons. Long and short, it is time to go back to Burpee and begin to prepare these specimens for eventual exhibit and research. 2013 will come sooner than you think!  But before we get to all of that….its time to get ready for the Hell Creek Field Season in Montana.  Triceratops, T. rex and Edmontosaurus…oh my!


Inspiring a lifetime of learning…

The tours at the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry have been in full swing for about two weeks.   We have had a steady stream of visitors curious about what a dinosaur dig is like.  To get to the site, the tour guests must travel eight miles on a desert surface road, which is about a thirty minute drive.  You might ask if there is a typical visitor; the answer is no. However, all come with curiosity and questions.  Let me share a bit about a few of our visitors. 

First, we do have return visitors.  It is exciting to see people who have enjoyed their previous experience so much that they return.  On my tours this week I can recall at least five groups that have previously visited.  We had one man, tall, lean, and brown from days in the sun.  He walked the hills in sandals.  In his German accent he questioned our progress and delighted in our discoveries, amazed by the number of bones, and by how much the quarry had changed since he was here a couple of years ago.

One of our most exciting guests was a couple from Belgium that had visited us last year.  At the end of a long day at the quarry, as I walked up to our motel door, I heard a voice.  I turned and recognized the couple.  “Welcome.  How great to see you.  You’re back.  You have to get out to the site again.”  The next day, Guy and Sabine drove out to the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry, eager to again have a tour.  They had questions about our techniques and the progress that we were making.  After the tour and checking a few more things, they asked, “With our limited English can we join your dig next year?”  “Your English is great.   We would love to have you.”  Emails were exchanged and they will be watching for the posting of expedition dates come December to register early for 2013.

We have received a variety of new visitors, including a retired family physician and his wife from Arizona, and a mineralogist from New Mexico.  The couples enjoyed their tours, but what is equally satisfying for the Burpee educators is what we learn from our visitors.  The mineralogist told how his grandfather had mined uranium north of the Hanksville -Burpee Quarry in 1958.  He had located the mines and the cabin his grandfather lived in.  A clue for the miners was the petrified wood and dinosaur bones around which the uranium formed.

Today we gave a tour to one of Burpee’s own families.  Peter has attended Burpee Adventurers and Burpee Explorers for the last two years.  His family planned their vacation around the time that the education staff was offering tours at the quarry.  They arrived today, having visited a number of dinosaur sites in Colorado and Utah beforehand.  One of these sites raved about the wonders of the Hanksville –Burpee Quarry to them and said that one day it will rival Dinosaur National Monument.   Peter was thrilled to be at a real quarry and to see Brad, Scott, Lisa and Betsy from the museum there working.  Others on the tour were impressed by Peter’s knowledge, and one visitor who was a teacher wished he was her student.  Peter easily identified petrified wood and bone float on our hill.  After the tour and a snack, Peter was out on the hill for an hour in the noonday sun brushing away sand and using an awl to expose a bone in the side of our hill.  Soon, though, the time came for departure.  He was lured away from his “dig” by the chance to use a rock hammer to collect some petrified wood outside the fence of the quarry and to head out to collect oysters.  Peter’s parents were thrilled by the opportunity for a dinosaur-loving little boy to experience a real dig and to have a first-hand opportunity to see scientists at work answering his questions.

At four’o’clock, a director of a crew of Utah Conservation Corp arrived for a tour.  Soon thereafter four more crew members arrived.  They had been given the time off to visit the quarry and drove nearly forty miles for their visit.  They had many questions about the processes of the dig they were observing.  They were most intrigued by the importance that invertebrates and vertebrate microfossils play in establishing habitat for the Morrison Formation.  For these young adults, visiting a dinosaur quarry was reviving childhood dreams.  The long drive, followed by the forty five minutes over the desert, was most worth the opportunity to see history being made by the removal of bones from a significant dinosaur quarry.

Now I am packing for the two day drive back to Rockford and summer classes at the museum.  I am recharged for the year by giving tours of the quarry to the public.  The public’s questions, interest in science, and their tremendous appreciation that Burpee Museum is providing them with the opportunity to be a part of science, is most encouraging to me.  Burpee Museum is making a difference in peoples’ lives.  We are fulfilling our mission statement to inspire a lifetime of learning about the natural world.

– by Betsy Carlson, Burpee Museum Educator

Passion for Paleo

Posted on behalf of Katie Tremaine, Chief Preparator:

My connection to Burpee started at a young age. As a little girl, I would spend endless hours of family vacations stuffing rocks and shells into any open space I could find- including the shoes of unsuspecting family members at the beach. Around age six, simply collecting these items wasn’t good enough. I wanted to know about them: where they came from, how they formed, what they were made of, etc. I had announced to my mother, at the ripe old age of four that I wanted to be a paleontologist. My mother said, “That’s nice, honey. We’ll see.” When six came around and I still hadn’t given up, she decided that something must be done. So, she started bringing me, with my little suitcase of fossils and rocks in tow, down to Burpee Museum. There, I had all my treasures identified and explained, including some Oreodont bones I had collected on my grandmother’s farm. These regular visits to the museum instilled in me a lifelong love of science, natural history, and of course, fossils. Over the years, however, I drifted slightly away from science; for many years I was intent on becoming an actress- something I was successful at for several years. During this time, though, I still harbored my love for fossils. In 2003, I decided I could wait no longer to test out my interest. I called up the museum, and I asked for an internship. Scott Williams (then Collections Manager), decided I was worth a shot. I interned at the museum for a little less than a year before I was hired as a preparator on the “Jane” project. This project was an incredible opportunity for a senior in high school, and I learned many things and was given many opportunities that I would not have otherwise. I am incredibly grateful Scott took that chance on me, because it set me on the trajectory I still follow today.

I remained a preparator for the next eight years. In my nine years at the museum, I have worked in Visitor Services, as a Preparator, and even sometimes cleaned the toilets and helped with tours. Not even toilet-cleaning can shake my love of this place. My love was rewarded when, in 2011, I became the Chief Preparator and became responsible for oversight of the lab and assisting with organizing collections.  Although being Chief Preparator has brought many challenges, it has been worth it. I have seen Burpee physically grow, expand its programs, and encourage young people in positions similar to mine- a service that remains highly meaningful to me today. In those nine years at Burpee, I also spent as much time as possible tagging along on expeditions. This dogged pursuit served me well, as I became a full-fledged expedition team member.

Katie demonstrates outlining a fish during a trip to the Green River formation in Kemmerer, Wyoming.

Today I act as a group leader of sorts on our expeditions, and I love the time I get to spend working with fossils. My role in Expeditions has changed dramatically since 2003. Now, I spend much of my time supervising others and finishing up jobs that most others cannot finish, whereas 2003 saw me creating jobs I couldn’t finish and being supervised. The insight I have gained from this position will suit me well in the next phase of my life- graduate school. As some of you may already know, I have been accepted as a Master’s student by Dr. Jack Horner at Montana State University. I cannot express how excited I am about this new journey. However, I will be leaving behind a very important and very sentimental place, with many friends and experiences I can never replace. I am so proud of the things the Burpee Museum Collections, Expeditions, and Prep Lab have done over the last nine years, and I am even prouder to say I was a part of them. I will miss Burpee intensely, but the only reason I have this opportunity is because of the faith and interest of Scott and Burpee Museum.

Burpee Expeditions provided me with a realistic expectation of what paleontological fieldwork looked like- picking, shoveling, hiking, picking, etc. All that physical labor didn’t deter me, and I kept coming back for more. I have learned basic principles of comparative anatomy, fossil identification, and excavation and collection techniques from the last nine years of Expeditions. This time in the field has brought other opportunities as well- I have met many famed paleontologists, and have worked with some of them. At Scott’s urging I joined SVP (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology), expanding my knowledge of many fossil life forms, techniques, and providing work, volunteer and graduate school opportunities. By citing my fieldwork, I opened many doors that would otherwise have been closed. For many students, fieldwork is unpleasantly eye-opening. Burpee has toned it down a little from some crews you might see on television, but it is still an experience that might shock some. If you are toying with the idea of paleontology, you should absolutely consider going on an expedition. Over the last several years Burpee has been ecstatic to see more than five high school students (who cut their original fieldwork teeth with us) move on to pursue degrees in biology/geology and dig with crews of world-renowned paleontologists.

I am incredibly pleased that the Burpee fieldwork experience helped encourage these students to pursue science degrees and fostered their interest in fossils. Very few other things could make me as proud. I invite any interested students to contact me or Scott with questions they might have, and I encourage them to pursue their dreams. We need more scientists in the world!

– Katie Tremaine, Burpee Museum Chief Preparator

Rolling Along

So the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry turned out to be one of those “once in a lifetime” dinosaur bonebeds, full of sauropods like Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and maybe even a Barosaurus.  Every year of excavations uncovered more and more specimens.  From 2008-2011, approximately five hundred bones from at least five individuals were found in an area as big as a football field.  Interestingly, it seemed that most of the specimens looked rather “smallish”. For example, a large, adult Apatosaurus femur (upper leg bone) can be nearly six feet in height but the largest femur we had collected was only about five feet. In fact, we even collected a small femur and fibula that was approximately 20 inches in length. So we began to hypothesize that we might be dealing with a site that was comprised of mostly juvenile and sub-adult sauropods.  One of the ways to test this would be to collect specimens and examine their long-bone histology, but I will save that for another post.

Amongst the specimens we collected, one began to appear more complete than the rest.  Found by Burpee Board Member Joe Mongan, (six year expedition veteran), this specimen started simply as a more than thirty inch long sauropod femur.  All around the femur more bones were found: another femur, tibiae and fibulae (lower leg bones), ribs, cervical (neck) vertebrae, dorsal vertebrae, forearm material, some hip material, and at least 20 caudal (tail) vertebrae.  Based on the size it looks like this specimen was also a juvenile. This was definitely a mountable specimen and prime “histo” material. 

When we came back this year (2012), we focused on this area and immediately found more elements (verts, ribs and another ulna). Of course, other finds were made.  Veteran Joe Kchodl uncovered a new Apatosaurus femur, scapula, femur and tibia on the hill known as Limb Bone Ridge.  Other finds included more of a possible Barosaurus that we have been collecting over the last several years. 

Along with the work, Education Tours have been going along swimmingly! In less than a week over 100 people have visited the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry.  We have had visitors from Germany, Belgium, the U.K, and several states. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. This site has all the trappings of a long term interpretive and educational site. 

So as the title says, things keep rolling along!

Striking Gold!

2008 could not come fast enough to return to our new locality in the Morrison Formation near Hanksville, Utah. The initial 2007 prospecting visit to this location was a complete success. There was so much weathered bone lying out you could literally shovel the “float” into a bushel basket. 

During the second weekend of May 2008, we returned and checked in with our friends at the Henry Mountain Field Station office. After touching base with them, we set up the quarry with air compressors in order to run small pneumatic tools that would remove the hard sandstone/conglomerate. We also brought out small generators to run fans should the infamous Utah gnats get to be too much, and we set up a large carport-tent to get a little R and R during the day. We were also fortunate that the Hanksville Mayor, Curtis Whipple, loaned us a 20 foot trailer to store our field supplies in.  As soon as all the site prep was done, we commenced to finding dinosaur bone.

To say we hit pay dirt almost immediately would be an understatement. The volunteers that we had began digging some exploratory, ‘test” excavation pits where they found lots of bone weathering out, or any in situ material. At the end of the first day we had discovered and partially excavated over thirty bones. These bones included: femora (upper leg bones); humeri (upper arm bones); ribs; and vertebrae. By the end of the first week we had over 100 bones discovered and mapped in. As the excitement and new discoveries at the site continued, I would make frequent reports to the BLM at the Henry Mountain Field Station Office and send emails to the Salt Lake Office. I was becoming more and more convinced that this was a dinosaur bonebed- and not of just any dinosaurs, but mostly my favorites, the sauropods. We were able to identify skeletal elements in substantial quantity to the following sauropods: Barosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and possible Apatosaurus.  We may have even found some isolated elements to a Stegosaurus and a partially articulated mid-sized theropod…Allosaurus perhaps? 

Every day there were several, if not dozens, of new bones found. Soon after, the Salt Lake, Richfield, and Hanksville BLM, along with Dr. Jim Kirkland of the Utah Geological Survey, and the College of Eastern Utah, came for a visit to confirm the size and scope of the locality. After the magnitude of the bone-bearing layer was established, it was decided we would call this new sauropod dominated bonebed the “Hanskville-Burpee Quarry”.  Press releases were sent to Utah media and before we knew it we had the Salt Lake Tribune, Fox, ABC, and NBC affiliates from Salt Lake down for interviews.  It was a great ride and we were still finding lots of bones, which was also a plus. All that PR helped get the discovery of the locality listed as a “Top Ten Fossil Find” of 2008 by National Geographic. 

We spent over six weeks working the quarry the initial year and had discovered approximately 200 bones, many of which were either closely associated or sometimes articulated.  We had time to follow the bone bearing exposures and found it extended for nearly a quarter mile to the north east. This was truly a giant bonebed of Dinosaur National Monument proportions, and it had a story to tell. 

As paleontologists we need to find, excavate, prepare, and research this material. In addition, we need to closely study the geology of a site like this. To tell this story, important questions need to be answered. Questions like: how did these dinosaur carcasses end up here; what happened to them after they died; what was the environment like- was this a river, lake, or something else; and more. By carefully looking at all the evidence, we should be able to say something of substance about this site.

We are now starting our fifth summer at the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry and I can tell you there is no sign of the quarry “running out of bones”. We have collected several partial specimens, adding up to approximately five tons worth of dinosaur bones, which we are now working on preparing in the lab. In fact, just in the last two days we discovered over a dozen new bones to a couple sauropods. One specimen (which appears to be fairly complete) is a juvenile Diplodocus, maybe only a third grown. We have also been collecting sediment samples, mapping the distribution and orientation of the bones, and studying the surrounding stratigraphy in order to tell the Hanksville-Burpee Story. 

We have some preliminary data that we can share with you.  It is a sauropod dominated site, meaning the vast majority of bones belong to these gigantic late Jurassic dinosaurs. Most of the skeletal elements seem rather small for a full grown sauropod.  For example a big Apatosaurus femur can be over six feet in length. Our biggest femur is only about five feet long; most have been around four feet. In fact all the elements are smallish. This might indicate the majority of these specimens are juveniles or sub-adults. Also, based on the fine sandstone and overlying conglomerate that repeats itself, this appears to be a river channel that had sand bars within the system. The river would occasionally flood, and carcasses would get buried. It also appears that we are within the upper half of the Brushy Basin (uppermost member of the Morrison).  However, all of this is preliminary. We still have a lot of work to do. More specimens means more data, and more data means we can provide a more accurate and reliable story to pass on to you.

So, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story” has still yet to be told. Come back and visit as we continue our work at the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry this summer. I will be posting pictures, updates on new finds, information about our tours, and much more.  See you soon!


A New Beginning: The Hanksville-Burpee Quarry

Over the last decade, Burpee Museum has made some significant paleontological discoveries like Jane, our juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex; Homer and the first Triceratops bonebed; and possibly new small Permian tetrapods from Oklahoma- but none were bigger (literally) than the discovery of what is now known as the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry.

By the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007 I was itching to begin a new paleontological program for Burpee. Ever since I was a young boy the dinosaurs that fascinated me the most were the sauropods. These were the long necked/tailed, quadrupedal, herbivorous giants of the Mesozoic. I can remember my family taking me to the Field Museum in Chicago and I was mesmerized by the size and grandeur of the mounted Apatosaurus.  In fact, I clearly remember sitting in front of the skeleton for what seemed like hours, trying to imagine how this animal moved, ate, and interacted with other Apatosaurus’. In actuality, it was probably 10 minutes at best, but I was a kid and that’s pretty good for a kid. Anyhow, ever since that time, sauropods have been my favorite group of dinosaurs. I routinely roll my eyes anytime I see a book or documentary that shows a poor Apato or Diplodocus getting waylaid by some Allosaurus.  I’m pretty certain that from time to time these gigantic dinosaurs got the better of these sneaky theropods.  In fact, there needs to be more reconstructions done where a sauropod is “stomping a mudhole” in a theropod, but I am wandering into a rant.

Anyhow, I wanted to get a mountable sauropod for the museum- for all the reasons above, and because sauropods are just amazing to behold.  So where do you find sauropods?  Well, various sauropod families can be found in the right Jurassic and Cretaceous strata in North America, South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, Madagascar, and so on. Since my expeditions budget prohibits any international jaunts, best to stick to home. One of the best, if not THE best, locality in North America to find sauropods is within the famous Morrison Formation of the western United States. The Morrison Formation records the last of the late Jurassic Period, or approximately 150 to 144 million years ago. It is known as an extremely fossiliferous formation and paleontologists have been collecting dinosaurs from the Morrison Formation since the late 1880’s.  Well known dinosaurs like Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Ceratosaurus have been found in the Morrison within states like Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana.

To get a better sense of where to look, I began sending emails and calling Morrison workers. I received great tips from Dr. John Foster from the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, Colorado and Mike Getty from University of Utah; and in a round-about way, began talking to Dr. Jim Kirkland, Utah State Paleontologist. Dr. Kirkland was a great resource and is nearly a walking encyclopedia of Utah Geology and Paleontology. After a serious conversation, he strongly suggested I look at the Morrison Formation around the town of Hanksville, Utah. There was a lot of the Brushy Basin member (a subset of the overall Morrison) exposed north and south of Hanksville. The Brushy Basin is a series of fluvial (or river) deposits like mudstone, clays, siltstones and sandstones.  Large dinosaurs like sauropods had a better chance of being buried after they died in a system like this.

As usual, funding was tight, but my aunt and uncle were able to make a small donation to the “exploratory trip”, along with a donation from then museum Director Lew Crampton.  We also needed to work with the Bureau of Land Management Office in Salt Lake City to obtain the proper permits to conduct “limited survey and collecting”.  Once the funding and permits were in place, we were off to visit Hanksville. As luck would have it, the town had a BLM Field Station Office (Henry Mountain Field Station) and we checked in. We met the BLM Geologist (now retired) Francis “Buzz” Rakow and explained what we were interested in. Immediately Buzz began talking about a locality north of town that he had been to where there was petrified wood and lots of dinosaur bone weathering out. He offered to show it to us and we immediately took him up on the offer.

The Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry, circa 2010.

The next day we headed north, and after only about 10 miles we came to a couple large sandstone/conglomerate exposures. As soon as we got out of our vehicles we began seeing weathered bone nearly everywhere.  Buzz walked us around the area and after we adjusted to the sensory overload of bone fragment everywhere, we commenced to trying to find in situ bone. Almost immediately we began seeing bone coming out of every hillside. We even saw partially articulated bones, like vertebral columns. After just a few hours of poking around, we knew that this was potentially a big dinosaur bonebed.  We spent a few more days in the area, checking out other outcrops, but deep down we knew that the first site Buzz showed us was the best.

We headed back to Rockford and, as we did six years before with the Hell Creek, began to formulate our return to Hanksville and big surprises for 2008!

Diary of a Dinosaur and Beyond

So in the previous posts, I gave a fair bit the history of the beginnings of Burpee’s paleontological field programs and how Jane, our famous juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex was discovered and all the logistical planning, hard work, teamwork that was required, along with a smattering of luck.  For those wondering about the infamous “Nanotyrannus” debate and why we determined she was a T.rex you’ll need to either come to Burpee or wait for the scientific paper to be published to find out for yourselves.

In reality, the discovery and excavation of Jane was “easy” compared to all that came next.  We had to prepare a substantially complete dinosaur for research and exhibit.  This meant Burpee had to build a fossil prep team, upgrade its lab, meet and plan for an exhibit and the list goes on.  I was lucky enough to be hired to build the prep team and outfit the lab, This career change also allowed me time to return to college and finish an A.S. degree and move toward a B.S. in Geology.  I had a small amount of fossil preparation experience.  I had read several books, a few prep papers, received advice and notes from a few in the field, but felt we needed more training. So I approached several experts in preparing dinosaur fossils; Bill Simpson, Geology Collection’s Manager at the Field Museum; Bob Macek at Sereno Labs and Peter Larson, Black Hills Institute.  I received tons of help and good advice from all of them. We also had a few Field Museum preparators come on weekends to help train and prep.  Fossil preparation takes a lot of dedication; good eye for detail, hand/eye coordination and patience (in many cases you are sitting in one spot or position for hours), in other words it takes a special person. Fossil preparators use a variety of tools; dental picks, pin vises, small pneumatic tools (microjacks), air abrasion to name a few. More than a few people have come to volunteer in my lab and have said “I always wanted to do this”…then they realize how time consuming and monotonous it can be.

After a bit of searching around and getting some good volunteers we were able to build a prep team, none of which had any formal training or experience.  Over 10,000 work hours went into preparing Jane’s bones for research and exhibit.   For a small museum like Burpee, it is a great accomplishment to go plan and execute a dinosaur dig and then return to prepare all the material in house, but we did it.  Many of the world’s best known paleontologists like Drs. Philip Currie, Thomas Carr, Jack Horner, Peter Makovicky, Bob Bakker, among many others, have seen Jane’s bones up close and commented on what a great prep job was done.  So needless to say, I am proud to say that they were a great team and had great skills.

Being planned in tandem with the preparation of fossil material was the exhibit concept, interpretation and design. Burpee staff met every week for about two solid years to “flesh out” and develop the exhibit. We met with the project manager, the exhibit fabrication company, the specimen mounting firm and more. Building a 2500 sq foot exhibit is like building a house; you have to go over every detail. It was a lot of work and often very stressful, but I am happy to say Burpee pulled it off again.  The Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur exhibit opened at the end of June 2005 to a huge crowd (approximately 3000 for opening day), within the first year of its opening Burpee had about 65,000 general attendance visitors, not to mention another 20,000 kids for school tours.  This was a nearly 200% increase in attendance compared with the previous year. It was clear that Jane had some star power.

The award winning “Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur” exhibit at Burpee Museum in Rockford, IL, featuring Jane the juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex.

There were other high points, for example the opening of the exhibit and announcement that Jane was a juvenile T.rex was covered on CNN and other major news outlets.  The exhibit went on to win the American Association of Museum’s (AAM) Excellence in Exhibition Award and we even had a Jane month declared in Rockford.  One of the big deals surrounding Jane was we had been working with Dave Monk and Brave New Pictures on a documentary about Jane and Burpee.  In 2006 The Mystery Dinosaur (hour long documentary) aired on the Discovery Channel it was later shown on the Science Channel. This show has been aired on and off for the last five years and its estimated that approximately 40 million people worldwide have seen the show.

Aside from all of the attention, increased attendance, TV shows, etc, Jane provided Burpee the opportunity to keep moving forward.  I liken it to surfing.  If you are on a killer wave and you fall off it, you may never catch the same wave again.  So keeping that in mind we continued our field work in the Hell Creek formation and in other localities.  During the last six years we have made other notable discoveries; Homer and the first Triceratops bonebed, collected early Permian tetrapods (some of which may be new species) from Oklahoma and in 2007 the discovery of the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry, near Hanksville, UT.  The HB-Quarry is a massive dinosaur bonebed found in the late Jurassic Bonebed Morrison Formation.

Now that you have the history of our fieldwork I can finally dive into what we are doing out here and why it’s a BIG DEAL….but that will have to wait for the next blog!

A Team Effort

Remember the phrase, “It takes a village”?  Well, in the case of the excavation of a fairly complete dinosaur, it may not take a village, but it’s going to require lots of dedicated people to get the specimen out safely. Excavating “Jane”, our juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, was no different.

On the heels of our successful 2001 foray into the Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana, plans were set in motion for 2002.  Chief among these was to obtain an excavation permit from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) for one site in particular.  On the second to last field day in 2001, some interesting bones were discovered at the base of an exposure. They were toe and foot bones and clearly belonged to a theropod dinosaur, possibly a large Struthiomimus.  Theropods are far less common than the large herbivorous dinosaurs of the latest Cretaceous, like the horned Triceratops or the “duck-billed” Edmontosaurus.  Complete “Struthio” specimens are even rarer, so we were pretty excited to get back there. One fairly large obstacle to this was about 12 feet of overburden (rock above the bone layer), and that an additional permit was needed.

After sending in the proper reports for 2001 and paperwork for 2002, we received our excavation permits from the BLM. Logistics were planned and a Burpee team went out to begin the thankless task of removing over 5000 cubic feet of rock. Sadly, I wasn’t able to come out directly as I was still doing my “cop job” and vacation time was hard to take. The initial team was a diverse group led by Mike Henderson and included a couple of geology students (Joe Peterson, who I mentioned in an earlier blog, and Chris Garnhart), Carol Tuck and Bill Harrison (co-discoverers), Carol’s husband Hazen Tuck (Burpee Board Member), and several other volunteers who came from various professions.  For several weeks these intrepid workers worked the hill down by hand, using paleo-picks, shovels, pry bars, etc.

Finally, after many hot, stressful days, they got into the bone layer. Once down to this level, tools shifted to more delicate instruments like awls, dental picks, small scrapers, tooth brushes, etc. Soon bones began to be discovered: ribs, more foot bones, limb material (tibiae and fibulae), and a partial femur. One thing was becoming clearer: this was no Struthiomimus; the bones were too large. Then came the “clincher”- the pelvis was discovered and exposed on its left lateral side. The pelvis is made of three paired (right and left) bones: the blade-like ilium, the pubis, and ischium.  The ilium on this dinosaur had a distinctive “hook” to the front end and an interesting attachment at the mid-point. Also, the pubis had a distinctive rounded protrusion at its end, known as a pubic boot. The size and characters meant Burpee had a found a tyrannosaurid (member of the tyrannosaur family)!  In the late Cretaceous you have several members of this famous family: Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus, Daspletosaurus, and Tarbosaurus, but by the very “end” you had just one left, the most famous member, Tyrannosaurus rex.  However, some paleontologists like Dr. Bob Bakker and Peter Larson believe there is evidence out there for a smaller cousin of T.rex that lived at the same time, “Nanotyrannus”.  Was it this controversial dinosaur that Burpee had discovered?

Several members of the Burpee Crew had to leave and go back to their “real world” jobs.  That’s when the 2nd wave (which included me) was able to tag in and do their part. It was now July and the heat of the summer was in full swing. I was able to get a few weeks off from work and drove a loaned Ringland Johnson Construction truck out to Ekalaka. I met up with Mike, Joe, Chris and a few other volunteers and got debriefed.  We were in a holding pattern. It was clear that heavy equipment was going to be needed to remove the rest of the overburden and widen/deepen the quarry. The BLM was petitioned to amend the permit and the waiting game for funding the renting of a backhoe was in full swing.  After a few days, Burpee’s then Director Lew Crampton was able to get help from back home. I should take a minute to point out that while the digging of Jane was ongoing, Lew was all over Rockford raising awareness, excitement, and securing funding.  I can attest (since Lew would later drag me along), that he left no city official, congressman, Kiwanis Club, Lion’s Club, Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, etc, unturned. It was thanks to Lew’s enthusiasm and showmanship that we were able to keep moving forward, but I digress (again).

Anyhow, we were able to get a local backhoe operator named Ernie Smith out to the site; quite a feat considering the nearly 3.5 miles this track hoe had to drive on a jeep trail. In a day and a half, Ernie and his machine did what it took 10 people three weeks to do by hand. As an aside, Ernie would come to our aid a few other times (including helping us out with Homer, our “teenage” Triceratops) and was a just great guy all around. Sadly, he passed away after a fight with cancer in the fall of 2010.

Once more of the bone layer had been exposed, work resumed. Very soon more bones were found: more ribs, limb material, and vertebrae. Then another exciting bone was found- Jane’s right dentary (jaw bone). Not only was it complete and nearly articulated with the surangular, but it still had several well-preserved teeth “rooted” in the alveoli. We uncovered more of it and realized that the teeth were laterally compressed and like the “Nano” teeth we had seen in the literature. Every one of us got up from where we were working to stare at this jaw. Mike kept saying “no…I can’t believe it, it can’t be”.  I turned to him and said “I’m quitting my job and staying here until Jane is out”.  Everyone looked like they wanted to start dancing, but sadly there was no music. The only tune running through my head at the time was the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”.

Jane’s dentary, jaw bone, as it was found in in the field.

After the rush passed over, we went back to work and continued excavation. Unfortunately, my two weeks went by faster than I wanted and I went back to traffic patrol, theft calls, DUI’s, and domestics. However, I stayed in touch with everyone there.  It was a real adventure! The remaining weeks involved excavating the bulk of Jane’s skeleton into a large “pod” that would eventually get plaster jacketed and reinforced.  Ernie was there with his backhoe to help roll the 4000 pound jacket and get it loaded onto a flatbed.  The “Pod” was taken out to the road where a Wood’s Equipment truck from Oregon, Illinois was waiting to take her home to Burpee. Jane rode the 1100 miles back to Rockford in style, and enjoyed a ticker tape, police escort into the Burpee parking lot where about 200 people waited to catch their first glimpse.

The total excavation of Jane took around 8 weeks. Over two dozen people from all backgrounds helped at some point with the excavation. We had assistance from the BLM, Ernie Smith, other Ekalaka locals, Peter Larson, Wood’s Equipment, ESTWING, Ringland Johnson, Rockford Blacktop, and the list goes on. Everyone had some part to play in Jane’s story and were integral in getting her safely excavated and brought back to Burpee, so hopefully you can see why the title of this blog is “teamwork”.  However, for as much work as the excavation was, even more work was going to be put into her preparation and research.  So, until next time…..